The Little Tramp’s final film strings together Depression-era vignettes. In an 83-minute film,the Tramp is arrested five times and works at four different jobs. He begins the film as an assembly line-worker but a nervous breakdown sends him to the hospital. After his release, he is arrested and imprisoned for allegedly leading a communist protest, then pardoned and released for foiling a jail break. A job at a shipyard lasts for a few minutes. Hoping to return to prison, he gets himself arrested,then escapes with a homeless teenaged girl (the Gamine). He is employed as a night-watchman for one night, then arrested again. When he returns from prison, he andthe Gamine set up house in a shack. He gets work at his old factory and is arrested for the fifth time after accidentally throwing a brick at a police officer during a strike. The Gamine gets work as a dancer in a night club and the Tramp is hired as a singing waiter. But, when the police show up to arrest the Gamine the two hit the road. They walk off into the dawn and the curtain falls on cinema’s most recognizable character.
Entering the critical discussion about the work of Charles Spencer Chaplin and his long-time alter ego – The Little Tramp – means engaging with a discourse of hero worship that the most ardent Judy Garland fan would find a little embarrassing. What makes Chaplin’s apotheosis particularly striking is that the worshipful language emerges from the pens and word processors of film critics, who are, as a group, critical. In a canonical paean to silent comedy, published in 1949, James Agee writes:
“Of all comedians [Chaplin] worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against. The Tramp is as centrally representative of humanity, as many-sided and as mysterious, as Hamlet, and it seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety or poignancy of motion. The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin’s work.” (Agee 2000: 488, 490).
In his massive 1998 book ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet’: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927–1949, Andrew Sarris includes essays about a number of directors of silents, including Chaplin. The Chaplin essay begins, ‘Charles Chaplin is arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon’ (Sarris 1998: 139). David Robinson, a Chaplin biographer, whose recorded introductions are included in the Chaplin DVD releases, describes the Tramp as ‘the most universally recognized representation of a human being in the history of mankind’ (Robinson 1985: xiii).
While silent films may seem remote in ways that even early sound films may not, Chaplin films have lost neither their charm nor their power to invoke laughter. Because silent film depended not on dialogue but on pantomime, the silents crossed language barriers in ways that sound film never will. Chaplin was one of the first international film stars, and remained the most international of film stars through the end of his career as a director and star of silent films. The Little Tramp was most recognizable film character in the world from the mid-teens until his final screen appearance in Modern Times.
Chaplin was the most rigorous of perfectionists: he rehearsed, shot and reshot until he was thoroughly satisfied. His unmatched popularity, feverish work ethic, and shrewd business sense made him one of the most independent filmmakers in the history of Hollywood. One can graph the astonishing rise in his popularity, the expanding market for film entertainment (and Chaplin’s aggressive negotiating tactics) through his contracts. Chaplin had grown up in London slums and had appeared on stage since he was a child. His first film contract, with Keystone studios, signed in December 1913, guaranteed Chaplin $150 a week, good money in 1913. Signing this contract meant retiring from his career in a touring musical comedy company and joining the troupe, supervised by Mack Sennett, that produced three comic pictures per week, each 10 to 30 minutes long. After a year in which he appeared in 33 Keystone films, several of which he also directed, Chaplin signed a contract with Essanay in November of 1914. The new contract guaranteed $1,250 per week, with a $10,000 signing bonus. Chaplin directed and appeared in 11 Essanay films, then signed with Mutual in February, 1916. The legendary Mutual contract guaranteed Chaplin $10,000 per week, with a signing bonus of $150,000. After directing and starring in several of his most acclaimed short films, Chaplin moved to First National in 1917, where he signed a contract with an annual salary of $1,075,000. By January of 1918 he was working in the studio he had built. In 1919, Chaplin joined with the period’s other big stars, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and director D. W. Griffith to form United Artists. He had just turned 30.
Two months after the 1927 premiere of The Jazz Singer – the mostly silent film which marked the beginning of the end of silent cinema as a viable commercial enterprise – Chaplin began work on City Lights. City Lights took more than four years to complete, premiering in high style in February 1931. By this time the transition to sound film, the most wrenching artistic and economic storm to hit Hollywood, exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression, was more or less complete. The careers of some of the most famous silent film stars and directors were over. New actors and comedians had already begun to take their places. City Lightsincluded a few sound effects, and a score composed by Chaplin, but no dialogue. It is recognizably a silent film. And yet it was one of the year’s most successful films, critically and commercially (Doherty 1999: 370–1).
The most astonishing fact about Modern Times is its release date – 1936 – almost nine years after the release of The Jazz Singer. To put this date in perspective, it’s worth considering how far into the sound era Hollywood had travelled by 1936. After a careful build-up, silent film star Greta Garbo had spoken in Anna Christie (1930). In an attempt to maintain Garbo’s international appeal, this film was released in English, German, and Swedish versions. German cabaret performer and film star Marlene Dietrich had made nine English language films, including an English language version of The Blue Angel made simultaneously with the German version. The Marx Brothers had made their most memorable films. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers had danced together in four films.
Glancing through films represented in this volume, we see that, by the time Modern Times was released, Frank Capra had directed It Happened One Night (1934), one of the first and finest of screwball comedies, a genre that depends – more than almost any other – on dialogue.
Technically, Modern Times is not a silent film. It has a recorded soundtrack, but the soundtrack contains only sound effects, a musical score (composed by Chaplin), and some recorded speech, none of it dialogue. Most of the speech is mediated by technology. Speech is transmitted through a PA system, a videoscreen, a record, or a radio. Modern Times does contain the first and only film sequence in which The Tramp opens his mouth and words come out. In the film’s final minutes, while working as a singing waiter, he is compelled to perform a song. He writes the lyrics on his (detachable) shirt cuff but, during his opening dance, he flings off his cuffs and is forced to improvise. The words that come out of his mouth sound vaguely Italian, perhaps with some French inflection, but they are entirely gibberish. Most of the conversation between characters is communicated either through pantomime or via a handful of intertitles, which had otherwise vanished from the screen. The Tramp still communicates through Chaplin’s extraordinary control of his body and extraordinarily expressive face.
Chaplin was generally seen as left leaning, with his films as evidence, and was considered politically suspect enough to be a subject of FBI interest from 1922 until his death in 1977. Certainly his films provide plenty of evidence that Chaplin sympathised with the poor. Chaplin spent 18 months travelling after the release of City Lights. During this time he developed an economic theory intended to lessen the consequences of the Depression. This interest emerged in part from visiting European countries that were suffering the economic consequences of depression, consequences that were already having a political impact. Modern Times in particular is legible as a critique of the dehumanising power of technology and, by extension, of industrial capitalism.
The opening factory scenes in Modern Times owe a great deal to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Metropolis makes melodrama out of the achingly repetitive work of assembly line workers and of the dangerous gulf separating the capitalists from the labourers on whose work they depend. In Modern Times, the critique of the assembly line is played for comedy. Chaplin’s film spends much less screen time on the capitalists. This time is efficiently damning however: the factory owner monitors his workers through video screens, and pushes them to work harder and faster. Apart from doing surveillance, he sits at his desk doing jigsaw puzzles. The critique of technology is also legible as a critique of sound cinema. The harsh recorded voices contrast with the lyrical elegance of Chaplin’s dancing comedy. The amazingly funny sequence in which the Tramp tests out the eating machine cast suspicion on the idea that technology can improve any experience: technology is just as likely to destroy the pleasure of a sensual experience.
When the film leaves the factory the focus on technology disappears. The concern for the poor does not. The Tramp was always an economically marginal figure and usually an urban one. Chaplin films routinely make comedy out of the Tramp’s pretence to respectability despite his poverty. Modern Times was the first Chaplin movie conceived during the Great Depression. Modern Timesis concerned with widespread poverty, not just with the marginality of a particular poor character or a particular region of a city.
At the same time, Modern Times contains Chaplin’s most astute, and funniest, comment on how his fame makes his politics visible and suspicious. This anticipates his banishment from the USA two decades later. In the second of the film’s four acts, Chaplin sees a flag fall off the back of a truck (even in black and white, we know the flag is red). Chaplin picks up the flag and chases after the truck, waving the flag as he does so. A march of unhappy workers appears behind him. Waving the red flag, Chaplin accidentally finds himself leader of a movement.
Modern Times is read as one of Chaplin’s most overtly political films, along with The Great Dictator (1940), the distinctly weird parody of Adolf Hitler, which trades on the striking resemblance between two of the most famous men in the world, born four days apart in 1889. Chaplin plays both, Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania, and a Jewish barber, one of the persecuted residents of Tomania’s ghetto. The barber resembles the Tramp, but he speaks. The character plays on the widespread suspicion that Chaplin was a Jew, something he refused to deny, although he was not. He was happy to be considered Jewish, especially during the Nazi period, when he saw it as an expression of solidarity with European Jews (Robinson 1985: 154–5). It almost goes without saying that neither Modern Times nor The Great Dictator was released in Germany. West German audiences had to wait until 1956 to see the Little Tramp as factory worker, until 1958 to see Chaplin as Hynkel; East Germans had to wait until reunification.
During the McCarthy era, Chaplin was a prime target for anti-communist witch hunters. Puritanical ideas about sex were as apt to cause suspicion as were leftist politics. Chaplin’s marital history – four marriages, all to much younger women, plus a paternity suit which found him guilty of fathering a child out of wedlock, despite a blood test which proved he could not have been the child’s father – did not help his cause. Despite his decades of work in the US he never took US citizenship. In 1952, Chaplin set sail for Europe and his re-entry visa was revoked. He spent the rest of his long life living in Switzerland, and did not return to the USA until 1972, when he received a series of honours, including a special Academy Award.
In recent years cineastes have been apt to compare Chaplin to Buster Keaton, another one-time Keystone comedian who struck out on his own as director and star in the 1920s. Keaton never had the control over his productions that Chaplin had, and his character did not survive the earthquake of sound, although he continued to appear in movies and on television until his death in 1966. Keaton now looks like a more innovative filmmaker, more apt to experiment with film technology and movie magic. But discussion as to who one should rate more highly seems a little silly. As viewers, we are a lucky that these two men made brilliantly funny silent films, and that so much of their work has survived.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Charles Chaplin Productions. Director: Charles Chaplin. Producer: Charles Chaplin. Original Music: Charles Chaplin. Editor: Willard Nico. Cinematographers: Ira Morgan, Roland Totheroh. Cast: Charles Chaplin (a factory worker), Paulette Goddard (a gamin).]
James Agee, ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’, in Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, New York, Random House, 2000, pp. 391–412.
Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930–1934, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999.
Charles J. Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989.
David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, New York, McGraw Hill, 1985.
Andrew Sarris, ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet’: The American Talking Film, History and Memory 1927–1949, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.